Sometimes, it seems the phenomenal success and user growth seen by Facebook and Twitter in the last few years has boxed in what we accept as a bonafide social network - as we early adopters and tech press absorb potential challengers like chum and digest them quickly, mocking their attempts as feeble, and their traction as futile. For some, Facebook and Twitter, despite their faults, are the end all and be all - and it matters not if other products have more features or innovation, because in the end, he with the numbers wins, and it seems they've got all the numbers.
In the meantime, recent comments from CEO Eric Schmidt of Google to social layers being part of whatever the company has planned for what's largely been dubbed as Google Me have people saying a thin layer of social spread like a veneer over the company's many products just won't be enough to challenge a behemoth like Facebook - yet we see social elements being added to just about everything, from our e-mail clients to our music players, our photo editors and our video games.
The world is going social, whether it's little bit by little bit or in an all-in gamble to change the world. It's simply a matter of perception as to what is a feature and what is a network, and if users are willing to give the old college try to networks that aren't from Palo Alto and San Francisco proper.
Apple's Ping, within iTunes. Is that a network, or a social layer grafted on an existing service? What about Spotify Social? Is that the same thing as Ping, or is that simply a service that integrated with Facebook - not a network on its own? Does a social network require a unique user name and password and its own social graph to be a network?
What about Google Buzz? Is that a social network, or a social layer inside of Gmail? And if that's a network, certainly one must consider the social elements of Google Reader as a layer and not a new network on its own, right?
And just where does this leave other innovative social services (that's a safe word), including Amplify, Cliqset, Quora, GetGlue, Plancast? Boxee? Is Foursquare a social network? And let's not forget the classics that have been here for a while, even if you're not talking about them... like MySpace. LinkedIn. FriendFeed. Orkut. The list could go on for a while.
As I mentioned in a somewhat off the cuff "timeline of new social networks not named Facebook or Twitter" post I put on Buzz earlier this month, it seems our rush to judgment rapidly dismisses any challengers to the throne. All we are doing, in many cases, is signing up, following the same old folks, kicking the tires, and then walking away. But services, if they are any good, aren't about the first week or first month of services, and not about the first 10,000 customers. They continue to build. While many were quick to judge Google Buzz and Apple Ping, usually not in the best of light, both services have added many features since their debut and both see strong engagement from a loyal core of users - even if not in the hundreds of millions. (If they did, trust me, they would tell us)
Additionally, it is interesting to see how the services themselves perceive their place in the world - if they are networks, layers, or features.
From the Google Buzz announcement in February, they said:
"If you think about it, there's always been a big social network underlying Gmail. Buzz brings this network to the surface by automatically setting you up to follow the people you email and chat with the most."So it sounds like, to Google, Gmail is the social network, and Buzz is the presentation of that network. Note this is not how they presented social features in Google Reader, when they added comments in March 2009 or when they added friend management in August of 2008. Neither blog post even mentioned the word social. So the ability to make friends, to add likes and comments, that was not a new network, but instead new features on an existing service - albeit one that integrates very well with Buzz, which came afterward.
In contrast, Apple Ping describes itself directly as "A Social Network for Music", while just last week, Twitter says it is not a social network at all, but instead a media company.
In May, I said to make a choice to your mobile phone platform, you should look to the core. For Blackberry, that's e-mail, for Apple it is iTunes, and for Google, it is the Internet. Not surprisingly, the latter pair's social networking aspirations are starting there. Apple has shoehorned a social layer into iTunes and called it a social network, much like Google did with Buzz and Gmail. Both companies are rallying users to spend more time in their assumed strengths. It makes good sense. Now, with the thought of Google adding social elements to everything, be it through layers, or widgets... or something, you can see the idea. Share everything. Like things. Link things. Facebook wants to own the "like-o-sphere" and capture what pages you like everywhere on the Web. Why would Google want them to have that alone? Of course they wouldn't.
The tech rumor mill is seemingly in wait and see mode over what they hope would be a full-on assault against Facebook from Google. Is it because they want an alternative to Facebook, and would literally leave the site for something else? I doubt it. I think it is as much because they want to see a fight. They want to cover a fight, and to declare somebody the winner and somebody a loser. It's clear, at least to me, most people aren't even spending the time to establish serious use on secondary platforms - platforms with elements similar to Facebook and Twitter that offer sharing and connections and liking and discussion - like Amplify, who wants to break through the 140 character barrier to have real communications, or like Cliqset, who wants to enable discussions to flow in and out of the network, no matter the origin, or still again, like Cinchcast, which is the easiest way to make a social network around audio podcasts on the go.
There's a like button in my iTunes now. I didn't ask for it. I don't even use iTunes much any more, now that I'm addicted to Spotify. There's a like button in my Google Reader. There are like buttons in my Facebook and my FriendFeed, and my LinkedIn too. These are social elements to existing networks. But think about who could turn this all upside down - the operating system guys and the browser guys. Guess what? They're one and the same now. Google has an OS and a browser. Apple has an OS and a browser. Microsoft has an OS and a browser. Only Firefox seems a little out of luck. Why wouldn't Google or Apple find a way to make the browser social, through a social layer, and make the entire Web their oyster? You wouldn't even have to make one more login with yet one more password to remember.
Let's not get too caught up on what's a network and what's not... what's a layer and what's not.... what's a feature and what's not. The real question is if the big guys are going to deliver tools that bring us real tangible benefits, or if there will ever be a small challenger that gets our attention so strongly that we really take the time to use it and get it right. For now, I think the alternatives to Facebook and Twitter are in the small niches. They are in Fabulis for the gay community, in SportsBlogNation for the jocks and fans, and in Reddit or Digg or Slashdot or Hacker News for the nerds.
Being social doesn't have to be in a network. It's everywhere. It is already a feature, layered into all we do.